Review

Spec Ops: The Line

The Horror

Spec Ops: The Line grapples clumsily with the ugliness of war.

By Gus Mastrapa • June 27, 2012

If you want a living, breathing city, go to Manhattan. If you want to see familiar places trashed by war, weather, and the apocalypse, play a video game. Spec Ops: The Line imagines a Dubai ravaged by a sandstorm. Survivors cling to life in ruined resorts and shopping malls half buried by the encroaching desert. The vistas are frequently striking, especially the views of the wreckage from the rooftops of sand-swept skyscrapers. Spec Ops: The Line is a palm tree and infinity pool vision of the apocalypse, where an oasis of opulence and excess is buried by nature and then further debased by man.

And since this is a video game, there’s got to be a reason to kill people in this unique place. This Gears of War-style shooter takes inspiration from Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness. An army Colonel tasked with leading the evacuation of the doomed megalopolis has dropped of the radar. As Captain Martin Walker, voiced by the unavoidable Nolan North, you lead a squad of soldiers looking for answers.

Sadly, both the questions and answers in Spec Ops: The Line are disappointing and dumb. Much blame goes to the long, dark shadow cast over this game by protest cinema of the ’70s. It would be silly (and masochistic) to expect an antiwar song by Skrillex on the soundtrack for a game like this. But when “Nowhere To Run To” by Martha Reeves & The Vandellas plays during a particularly hairy firefight, it’s clear that Spec Ops: The Line is more indebted to baby boomer nostalgia than the plight of Generation Kill.

Spec Ops: The Line

One reason to admire Spec Ops: The Line is that it doesn’t flinch from the horror. The ruins of Dubai are adorned with corpses hanging by their necks—a remedial but effective way of showing that in this place, the conch shell has shattered. And players are frequently confronted with dried, twisted corpses whose lips are stretched back in gruesome, toothy grins. This is a far cry from the silly rag-doll flops, orgasmic explosions of guts, or slowly fading pools of blood that often serve as the consequence of video game death.

Soldiers moan pitifully when downed by gunfire, adding a hair more consequence to the act of gunning down a human being. Most of that potency is lost, though, when you’re invited to brutally execute the wounded with a single button press. Still, there’s more honesty about the costs of war here than in the entire Call Of Duty series. Particularly striking are moments that grapple with the use of white phosphorus—an incendiary weapon that was used by both Saddam Hussein and the U.S. In Iraq. There’s still a bit of cake eating-and-having when the white fire rains down from the sky, igniting soldiers like candles who evaporate into lovely swirls of spark, smoke, and ash. The scene is both harrowing and a little cool. If that dichotomy is an indictment of war games and the people who play them, the statement is surely accidental.

Spec Ops: The Line

Walker’s two allies are there to add context if the player gets too detached from the ugliness. Much of the game’s non-violent conflict comes from the constant (and sensible) questioning of the player’s increasingly dubious actions. Otherwise, the two soldiers are extensions of Walker’s will. There’s no way to control where those wingmen go, but it is possible to issue kill orders, which is a useful way to multitask the busywork of killing enemies.

Fights hew closely to the duck-and-cover template. Huddling behind barriers is mandatory—perhaps more here than in other clones. The aftereffects of the sandstorm add a new but underused wrinkle: Shoot certain windows and vents, and the enemy will be drowned in sand. Otherwise, the necessities of The Line’s shopworn genre serve mostly to undermine its own ambitions. When knife-wielding, mustachioed bad guys turn up, they feel more like generic enemy types delivering “variety” to the gunfight than confused or brainwashed soldiers fighting on a madman’s mission. It might be impossible to keep such characters from being reduced to fodder, but play and plot seem particularly distant in these instances. They’re even farther afield in the game’s multiplayer, which pares back commentary and color to the point of non-existence.

As a requiem for the modern military action game—a body overdue for revision and retrospect—Spec Ops: The Line is a stinging belly flop. Striking visions of the world’s end aren’t in short supply at this point. But a new, thought-provoking reason to explore the ruins of civilization remains one of our holy grails. The setting here is right and the scenario feels promising at first, but in the end, the game feels like another arms-length morality play with no heart. If you’re going to plunge fearlessly into the darkness like this, you’ve got to have one.

Spec Ops: The Line
Developer: Yager Development
Publisher: 2K Games
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
Reviewed on: Xbox 360
Price: PC—$50; PlayStation 3, Xbox 360—$60
Rating: M

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  • HobbesMkii

    I liked that someone has finally managed to completely justify having a washed out sand-and-grey color palate: “Well, there’s a giant sandstorm, see? So everything is either sand, or grey from where the sand has washed it out.”

    • Aaron Riccio

      I haven’t played it, but didn’t Journey do that? Or does the main character’s robe disqualify the game?

      • PaganPoet

        Journey is surprisingly colorful though. Deep blue underground caverns, bright red fabrics, pink and orange sunset, etc. Although now that I think of it I don’t recall there being much green in the game…

  • Spacemonkey Mafia

    While not concerning Spec Ops specifically, I just wanted to say this site has now officially replaced Kotaku as my one gaming site bookmark. Break out the bubbly, Gameological! You’ve made it, baby!

    • PaganPoet

      Eskimo kisses! All around!

    • Fyodor Douchetoevsky

      ONE OF US ONE OF US

      Also, while this thread is off topic, Has everyone watched the Meet the Pyro video that was put out today? I kind of really like it a lot. And if you haven’t seen them you should watch all the other  ”Meet the___” videos for TF2 because they are awesome.

      • Spacemonkey Mafia

        As a matter of fact, I did. It makes me wish multiplayer had any interest to me, that game looks so well designed.

        • Fyodor Douchetoevsky

          It’s a very fun game. I was trying to plan a Gameological game night thing where we’d play it (’cause it’s FREEEE) that is tentatively scheduled for tomorrow around 9, but I’m not sure how that will pan out. I don’t have a server or anything ready. I’ll definitely play some rounds with whoever wants to join me though.

        • Spacemonkey Mafia

          @fyodor douchetoevsky I’d love to play a few rounds with friendly players, but god help me, I can’t as I’m playing Pathfinder tomorrow night.

        • Spacemonkey Mafia

          @Douchetoevsky:disqus 
          I’d love to play a few rounds with friendly players, but god help me, I can’t as I’m playing Pathfinder tonight. 

      • BarbleBapkins

        Meet the Pyro is absolutely terrific. The reveal of (SPOILERS?) the Pyro’s view of the battlefield actually made me laugh out loud.

        All of the Meet the Team videos are great, and were what got me playing TF2 in the first place, so I guess I have them to blame for the amount of my life I have wasted on that game.

    • doyourealize

      I stopped reading Kotaku a while ago. There was a pretty specific reason, but I don’t remember what it was. Definitely a good reason, though, and you would agree with me!

      I turned to Eurogamer after that, but that’s become #2 since Gameological. Besides quality of journalism, of which Gameological is superior, Eurogamer had a way of confusing me with their euro-ness. I couldn’t find Xenoblade Chronicles in any store after they said it was released, and was thrilled when Mass Effect 3 came out Tuesday instead of Friday.

      • PaganPoet

        Other than Gameological Society, I generally like Gamesradar. Their articles are humorous, and they have a fondness for numbered lists. They’re the cracked.com of video game sites.

        • HobbesMkii

           Except the comments section is full of people who respond to the articles with in-depth analysis and thoughtful commentary, as opposed to calling the writers unfunny and/or repeating the jokes back.

      • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

        Kotaku is a great gaming site if you:
        A) don’t read the troll articles.
        B) steer clear of the comments section.

        • doyourealize

          I was steering clear of the comments section long before I stopped reading altogether. And in all honesty, I still head over there every once in a while. I just prefer getting news from elsewhere.

        • http://ongameplay.tumblr.com/ Marius Jigoreanu

          Good point!

      • BarbleBapkins

        The only other gaming website I can bear to read any more, apart from Gameological, is Rock Paper Shotgun, which is PC only but usually has articles that are well written and commentors that aren’t quite as awful as most gaming websites (this one excepted, of course!)

      • http://www.facebook.com/deejaytaufiq Mohamad Taufiq Morshidi

         Kotaku’s flaws is adding that sense of Gawker pretentiousness.

        Also, when they posted that “Why i hate Japan” article is the moment i’ve decided to stop reading Kotaku. Seriously, articles like that are what kills integrity for me.

        • blue vodka lemonade

           Is it “Japan: It’s not funny anymore?”

          Your comment sent me over there to try and find such an article, and that’s what I came up with. If that’s the one, then I don’t think it’s too bad, though it is terribly long.

      • blue vodka lemonade

         I have an aversion to the Gawker family just because I don’t understand their damn design. It’s harder than it should be to just some articles, in the order they were posted.

      • http://ongameplay.tumblr.com/ Marius Jigoreanu

        There are tons of sources and many are flooded with time-wasters. Curating is a thing! absolutely necessary in a world of daily internet. An ongoing sanity-check process.

  • Effigy_Power

    Every time a new wargame a la CoD comes out I wonder how the military shooter could be re-imaged completely in order to avoid repeating the same stuff over and over. Then I see the ads, the hype online and 14 year olds dragging their tired parents into a Best Buy, screaming to drop $60 and I think the hurdle isn’t how, but why bother.

    • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

      Everything I’ve read about this game leads me to believe that it’s very un-CoD-ish. I can’t confirm that without playing it, though. If nothing else, I have to applaud the developers for at least trying to tell a different kind of story. I’m intrigued, but in a wait-until-there’s-a-half-price-sale-on-Steam kind of way.

  • Vervack

    Gus, I respect you as a writer, but I disagree with your opinion and think you’re a terrible person. Well, not that last thing (although I don’t know your home life, so who knows…).

    I’ve actually been waiting for this game since the first news of it appeared back in 2010 (it went into hibernation for a while), so I am more than a little biased in its favor. I liked the game a lot, but my thoughts are a little scattershot right now becuase I just got finished playing it a few hours ago, but I do have a few thoughts.

    Since I basically came into the game having ignored most of the marketing, I didn’t know what to expect. I’d been initially attracted by the references to Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now, but I full well know expecting a game with the power of either of those works would be way too optimistic. I suppose what I was expecting was a shooter that would take on the absurdity, the violence, and the terror of those works to create a horror that draws you in rather than repels, and in this, Spec Ops succeeded.

    I was looking forward to the absurdity, since the absurd moments in Apocalypse Now were some of my favorite parts of the film (I remember watching the USO Playboy bunny show on the lake for the first time and wondering why none of the soldiers in the movie realized how fucking insane the whole thing is), and the setting of Dubai just brings that out. To describe Dubai briefly, imagine your hometown/city, save with every building built before 1980 removed and with 8000x the amount of money. There’s large parts of the game where you’re wandering through these amazing opulent skyscraper lobbies and penthouses owned by people who spend more on an afternoon of shopping than any of us make in a month. It also drives how just how much stuff society generates these days, and how it accumulates. (Honestly, one of the strangest parts of the game came for me at the 3/4 mark, when I was in a firefight in a shopping mall and I literally ran through an abandoned Games Workshop outlet. I’m still trying to digest that one.)

    I’m still mulling over the game’s use of violence, but I would suggest that it would be a mistake to view the relationship between the beauty and the horror of violence as a dichotomy. From my perspective, they are merely two elements of the same entity. Violence and destruction can be, in their ways, deeply beautiful acts. It’s not a problem of video games; it’s a problem of life.  In fact, I think that this attractive aspect of violence is one of the minor threads that drives the actions of both Walker and Conrad’s soldiers in the game, along with the Heart of Darkness plot, the hubris of contemporary capitalistic society, some subtle criticism of American foreign policy (particularly the habit of committing any number of malevolent acts in the name of saving face), as well as some directed at the unpleasant facets of the modern shooter.

    To sum up this giant mass of words, it’s a modestly ambitious game, and one I felt that succeeded in its ambitions.

    Don’t bother with multiplayer, though. I don’t even know why they put it in; I’m certainly not going to use it.

    • http://gameological.com/author/johnteti/ John Teti

      I think Gus would concur with me (but who knows! he is his own man) when I say that this is pretty much a model “I disagree” comment. Thank you for taking the time to share it, and I hope to see you more around these parts.

      • http://twitter.com/Triphibian Gus Mastrapa

        I do agree. I love thoughtful counters. For me, when a game hitches onto a great piece of entertainment or literature my expectations (I think understandably rise). I know John and I went through this with that Godfather II game — I expect more than passable in these situations. I want at least a little inspiration. Sadly, I felt none from Spec Ops. Hell, even the title of the game is woefully uninspired. 

        • http://gameological.com/author/johnteti/ John Teti

          To clarify for everyone else, and for the record, I did not think that The Godfather II was a very good game.

        • RidleyFGJ

          Oddly, Take Two thought that the best way to help out the sales of a potentially intriguing concept like what this game offers was to resurrect an IP best known as a series of crappy budget PS1 games that you’d find on a K-Mart endcap.

          Perhaps it was inevitable, though; they tried to make the IP a bit more respectable in the earlier part of the last decade by handing it over to Rockstar before they realized that they had better things to do with their time and the team that was working on the revival decided to focus their efforts on a far more riskier idea for a game, one that involved playing as a student as a private academy…

        • HobbesMkii

           @JohnTeti:disqus Oh my goodness, can you say that again.

        • ryanthestormout

          @RidleyFGJ:disqus Yeah, I feel like this is a situation where if they want to get their game made, they’ve got to take an existing IP, especially with so many similar looking war games on the market.

          @Vervack:disqus That said, I haven’t finished the game yet, but so far I’ve been really intrigued by what I’ve seen and I agree with you regarding most if not all of the points that you make (especially those regarding Dubai as a location). On the one hand it’s a mediocre bang bang shoot em up, but on the other hand, in my experience at least, it creates this pervasive sense of dread that affects how you read your actions. *Spoilers* The first time an American soldier opened fire on me and I had to put him down while my wingmen yelled “We’re not CIA, we’re Delta Force,” I genuinely just wanted them to listen because I had no idea why the hell I was doing any of the things I was doing and I just wanted us all to get our bearings because I felt like we were all being pulled along by unfortunate circumstances. After years of Call of Duty, where I never knew what the hell I was doing because who gives a shit, I found this to be an odd and unsettling sensation. Similarly, the first and only time I did an execution in the game, the guy looked up at me and begged me not to kill him while pitifully trying to protect himself. I found it unsettling and never did it again. I feel like one of the things that works is that they give you these options to do horrible violent things and then they try to dissuade you not to do them. Which is smart. 

          It’s by no means a perfect game or even, as Gus pointed out, as far as shooters can go regarding self-reflection and self-criticism, but it’s a good start, especially when compared to the point blank proselytizing of the Metal Gear series or Call of Duty’s attempts to both have cake and also eat said cake.

        • ryanthestormout

          One last thing and then I think I’m done, but I’m only two thirds of the way through the game so who knows. You mention the white phosphorous, but you neglect to mention that the player is then forced to walk through the aftermath afterwards, which definitely helps demolish any awesomeness that the scene contains. It’s a means to an end, and it’s a pretty terrible one.

    • Sandwichands

      Commentary like this is why this site is far and away the most interesting of any games sites around at the moment. The genuine discussion that happens below the articles is incredible and the writing style used here just lets it flow.

      I think the lack of a definitive rating or ranking system leaves the articles without the finality of most “reviews” so a lot of dialogue occurs after.

      Great work everyone involved its a joy to read this site!

      • HobbesMkii

         The only real problem is that if you come in late to one of these back-and-forths, there’s no one left to engage with your point.

        • http://twitter.com/tclancy Tom Clancy

          Totally untrue. Right everyone?

        • Lurky_McLurk

          Having just played this game, sadly I suspect your comment here is true.